|We were up by 4am. Packed up our laundry and tip-toed downstairs with our stuff. Two staff were sleeping on mats laid out on the floor of the lobby. One of them, the nice guy, got up and handed us a couple of bags full of cut up papaya and melon, and some instant coffee packets for the road. We loaded our bikes outside, and said goodbye to the guy seeing us off. Myles left him a nice tip, which he really appreciated. I didn't realize in time that my seat was wet from the rain last night. My bum got soaked and would remain so for the entire day. With those thoughts in mind we headed down the cobble-stone street on our way towards the jetty. It was completely dark outside. Trishaws were already ferrying people back and forth, with no lights on. People here are so used to seeing stuff come at them without warning in the dark, they just react when they have to and continue on their way, unperturbed. Myles navigated well, it didn't take long for us to arrive at the jetty. We were instantly surrounded by more than a handful of people offering us their hand in carrying our bikes onto the boat, the look of desperation in their faces. We didn't want to deal with so many of them. Myles carried each bike down a rather steep flight of stairs, and from there we followed a series of laid out, slippy wooden planks of various widths onto the boat. Our bikes were to spend the entire trip on the lower level of the boat in the back. We didn't even bother to lock them up. A couple of local women were preparing their bed for the boat ride right beside them. We made friends by letting them put some cool thanakha on our white faces. We were one of the last passengers to board the boat. After depositing our bikes at the back of the boat, we were lead to the top deck, were many locals were sitting, or sleeping on the floor. Much to our dismay, we were to occupy one of two remaining plastic chairs, set out in a couple of rows, especially for foreigners. The entire floor of the deck was covered in overlapping mats, baskets and blankets. Locals created comfy looking little spaces for themselves. Many carried with them packed lunches and snacks. In other words they all looked like they've done this before.
Before the boat started to move, Myles managed to get some noodles and tea packed in a little bag, sans straw. A local sitting next to us gave us his mug to use, in exchange for a banana. The tea was much better coming out of a mug. It's quite challenging to drink hot liquids out of a plastic bag, you should try it at home - or, maybe it just takes some practice. When the boat got up to its full speed, I realized why it's called 'the slow boat' and why the journey was to last the next 15 hours. The river was very wide, and the water very calm. We started out in the dark. The air was very cool, as it moved passed us. I had a good nap on the floor. When I woke up it was light out, and many local folks were socializing, and hanging out, while others were selling treats, fruit and massages. We passed mostly flat terrain, some hills off in the distance studded with white and golden stupas, and little villages with thatched roofs. A little while later, I headed to the back of the boat for some hot tea. While sitting there, I was approached by a woman in her late 40s. She spoke English. She looked tired, and there were just a few hints of thanakha left on her beautiful face. She looked very sad, even when she smiled. She introduced herself as Maw Maw. She told me about her 23 year old daughter, PaO, who passed away just a few weeks ago from heart failure, after giving birth to a tiny baby girl. She also told me of her second daughter, 18, the only one she has left. Then she went on to tell me about her husband passing away 12 years ago. She talked about praying to Buddha, and donating money to monasteries and supplying new robes for monks, and still not having luck in her family. She asked if I could join her later, while pointing to a distant spot on deck. She wanted help writing a letter in English. I agreed to help her. She seemed very genuine, her face told her story. I shared all that with Myles. While I was gone, he had a conversation with another traveler about locals asking foreigners for money. He related a piece of advice he got from someone about traveling in Myanmar: "trust everyone you meet". It is true, there are so many people here whose stories will sound too sad to be true, but you must give them a chance. There is a chance that you might be taken for a ride, but than again you might be making a friend. With all that in mind, I headed over to sit with Maw Maw and her daughter. They both looked absolutely drained. Her daughter barely looked up at me. The letter was to be send to three overseas friends that have helped Maw Maw over the last few years. In it, she gave them the grave news of her daughter, and thanked them for their support. She also urged them to visit her in Myanmar to meet her new granddaughter, who she said is small but beautiful and healthy. She continued talking to me about PaO. She broke down in tears several times. Myles joined us later. Maw Maw prepared us some rice, eggs, and samosas. We shared some oranges with them, and peanut treats. Maw Maw invited us to her home in Nyaung U, a town where we were staying while in Bagan. She drew us a map to her home, and wrote out her address in Burmese, so that we could ask locals for directions on the way. We promised we would come on the second day there, the day we were to leave on an overnight bus to Yangon. That made her happy, she told us about her home, her three pigs and her garden.
When we returned to where we were sitting, the boat stopped at the first of many stops on the way. Women selling fruit, treats and what have you got on. Most were carrying large trays of stuff on their heads, some were balancing massive bunches of bananas. They were all on us before we could hide. Maw Maw taught us how to say: "we got some already" in Burmese, which helped with some of them. A few locals were using the side of the boat as a jumping platform, and were doing back flips into the river. Kids on land, and on deck were asking using gestures for shampoo, pencils, soap or perfume. Some of the ladies selling fruit would gladly exchange it for any of those items. We really wished we had some, trading would have been fun. From the deck we could see a steady line of people getting on the boat, and a steady line leaving. Most locals were balancing massive loads of things on their heads. There was screaming, chaos and a sense of urgency. It was incredible to watch. Then as if on cue, everyone was back on land, and all stuff loaded and unloaded, and the boat was on it's way again.
In between stops, one woman kept pressuring us to buy stuff from her, get a massage and later just to give her"no money present". She was using her little son to get to us. She persisted the entire time, getting more and more desperate as time went on. It was very tiresome. She did move on to other foreigners on deck, but eventually would come a full circle back to us. At the Pokoku stop, several women got on selling/trading cotton blankets. They stayed on the boat until the final stop in Nyaung U.
I checked on Maw Maw a few times throughout the boat ride, and found her sleeping each time. She came up to me at the end, to say goodbye and to remind us to visit her for some fish curry and veggies. Getting off the boat was challenging. It was dark, busy with people, and the wooden planks that were laid out were rather slippery. What added to the challenge was the fact that a few very eager guys wanting to carry our stuff out for a fee surrounded us. Eventually we made it to land. While making our way to the road in sight, away from the chaos, a little boy was still holding on to Myles' handle bar, still hoping to carry something. It felt great to ride past all the taxis, and trishaws waiting to pounce on the other tourists. We had little trouble finding a guesthouse, as there are many. Bagan has got to be the most famous tourist destination in Myanmar, the Angkor wat of Myanmar if you will. There are a few restaurants in town, trying to serve up western fair, but all in all local food is still better. After some quick eats we headed for bed, the promised hot shower turned out really cold.